Saturday, October 11, 2008

Sarah Palin's Religion

Since she was tapped as McCain’s VP pick, there has been much interest in Sarah Palin’s religion. Here is what we know.

  • She was baptized Catholic as an infant.
  • She attended an Assemblies of God (a Pentecostal denomination) congregation as a child.
  • She was president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in high school.
  • She left the Wasilla Assemblies of God in 2001.
  • Today, she does not describe herself as a Pentecostal or an evangelical, but as a “bible-believing Christian.”

The amount of misinformation and derision regarding Palin’s faith and religious views is astounding. I already mentioned the Washington Post cartoon mocking her religion. Since then, there have been some other developments that make this story worthy of a full length post.

The Iraq War was a “mission from God”?

Charles Gibson asked Palin about this quote in his interview:

As points out, Gibson took her words out of context by not finishing the quote. (Did you notice how ABCs video clip of the quote ended abruptly?) Here is the whole quote:

"My oldest, my son Track, is a soldier in the United States Army now. ... Pray for our military. He's going to be deployed in September to Iraq. Pray for our military men and women who are striving to do what is right. Also, for this country, that our leaders, our national leaders, are sending them out on a task that is from God. That’s what we have to make sure that we’re praying for, that there is a plan and that that plan is God’s plan."

As you can see, in context, her words were similar to Lincoln’s. Essentially saying "pray that God is on our side."

Dinosaurs roamed the earth 4,000 years ago?

This was an internet hoax started by a blogger with 20 readers (according to him). This CNN clip shows the blogger and explains:

This rumor made its way quickly around the internet, was a topic of the much ballyhooed Matt Damon interview, and was reported in the LA Times, which printed the story based upon the word of a liberal blogger in Alaska. (As far as I can tell, the LA Times has not printed a retraction.) The fact that this rumor would spread so quickly is indicative of some deep-seated biases.


This YouTube video shows Palin being prayed over by a Kenyan preacher named Thomas Muthee. In the prayer, he asks God to keep her safe from “every form of witchcraft.”

Andy Barr, of, did some research. He found a 1999 Christian Science Monitor article about Muthee indicating that he equates witchcraft with demons or evil spirits, not in the American cultural sense of someone who practices the Wicca faith. Barr also asked Harvard religion professor Jacob K. Olupana about the prayer. Opulana was surprised at the reaction over the video and remarked that, “Witchcraft as part of a belief system is real to the people who live there,” and there was “nothing unusual about what happened.”

CNBCs Keith Olbermann also reported on the video, but rather than find some experts who might understand something about Muthee’s or Palin’s faith, he interviewed Alaska radio journalist Shannyn Moore, a political liberal. He began the interview by calling the video “terrifying.” Moore noted that Muthee believes in “spiritual warfare," and added, “it’s pretty farfetched, I think, to many of us.” And later remarked, “you see this and you wonder are we going to be going from waterboarding to just throwing people in ponds to see if they float or not?”

I assume that Olbermann would describe himself as a liberal, but is it liberal to mock other cultures? Liberals should be tolerant of those who are not like them and accepting of cultural differences.

Doug Weed wrote a prescient blog post shortly after Palin was announced as McCain’s VP. He said, “But wait until liberal media finds out [about her faith]. Expect all hell to break loose. She will be portrayed as a pro creationist - Neanderthal. Just wait.”

The fact that so much misinformation is spread so quickly about Palin’s religion shows that we, as a nation, have a long way to go in accepting our religious differences. These events also show that the media does a horrible job in trying to understand and accurately report on religion. I noted in an earlier post that that the media, by and large, failed to understand the context of Jeremiah Wright’s sermons. Now it is showing the same ineptitude with Palin’s religion.

Also remarkable, many in the media are treating charismatic religion like it is a fringe religion, akin to voodoo. Charismatics (these include Pentecostals) are the fastest growing religious group in the US, and today (according to Barna Group) comprise 36% of all Americans! This includes 1/3 of Catholics, and it is particularly prevalent among Latinos. Follow this link to learn more about charismatics from a journalist who is one.

If Palin is charismatic (she hasn’t talked much about it, so we really don’t know), her nomination is historic. Think about it. A religious movement that has influenced over 1/3 of the population has never before produced a presidential or vice-presidential nominee. Why aren’t we talking about this in a positive sense, the same way we talked about the first Jewish nominee in 2000?


Stephen Maynard Caliendo said...

I don't think all the talk of Palin's religion is that relevant. But I will say that 1) God should not be on "our" side solely -- God loves all peoples, not just Americans; 2) Those who believe in literal creationism inherently believe the "dinosaurs roam the earth with humans" thing -- it's not something that needs to be attributed directly to Palin. How else to explain the science of archaeology, paleontology, etc.?; 3) liberals do not need to be "tolerant" of intolerance -- if someone is oppressing others on the basis, progressives have a responsibility to speak out. Accusing people of being witches certainly falls into that category.

I agree with Napp that there is exaggeration for political gain, but there's really not a lot of "misinformation." Palin, like many Americans, clearly thinks Americans have and deserve God's blessing more than people in other nations, doesn't think that life on earth dates back no farther than 10,000 years, and is supportive of a man who has used his power as a person of the cloth to oppress those whom he detests.

Does any of that matter? At this point in the campaign, I don't think so. Palin's lack of sophisticated understanding of the issues (or at least her inability to demonstrate such understanding) and her willingness to drum up hatred of the "other" and play on fears and resentments of Muslims and African Americans is much more relevant than any of this.

KJ Schiffman said...

I think it is downright shameful how the media (for lack of a better word...) worships Obama and tears Palin/McCain apart.

I'm definitely not saying she is the strongest candidate out there -- I think it was a move by the McCain camp that could've gone off brilliantly. I'm not sure it did in the end.

I think it just goes to show that Christians or those who stand up for Republicans are nearly persecuted in print and broadcasts.

Where is the justice in that? For a country who boasts our freedom -- we are sure selective in which parts of freedom are highlighted and deemed positive-newsworthy.

karenwalker said...

I completely agree with everything that you have written regarding religion and presidential candidates. Past presidents like JFK and Jimmy Carter have had to deal with religious prejudices as well. What I would like to ask is does this cut both ways? Should candidates use religion to garner votes? I think that the dance that we do with our presidents is a very interesting one- and not just when it come to religion. On the one hand, their children and families are off limits; on the other, they parade them in front of the camera every chance they get. If Al Gore had held that kiss one second longer, I was going to turn down the lights an open a bottle of wine. As it was, millions of Americans felt the need to light a cigarette. When candidates exploit their families, their religion, and various assorted unsuitable things to get votes, should we be surprised when the tables are turned? I am not talking about Ms. Palin specifically, but rather the atmosphere that has brought us here. Specifically, the problem with Sara Palin and religion is the same as her not saying what newspapers she reads or Supreme Court cases she disagrees with- she leaves people wondering. I do not care if she worships the insides of her eyelids. I DO however, care if she believes that global warming is not manmade- which she passed up the opportunity to clear up in the debates. I care if she believes in the separation of church (be it Baptist, Catholic, Muslim, Pentecostal, or Eyelid Worshiper, church) and state. I believe that dinosaurs certainly did roam the Earth- I have seen the fossils of dinosaurs and their bones displayed in museums. It is important to me that a presidential candidate has enough education to understand this as well. It is a shame that politicians started this whole nasty thing by pandering to the religious right, but now I NEED to hear politicians say what they believe.

karenwalker said...

I want another bite at this apple- Many of us who strongly believe in the separation of church and state do so because we are offended by intrusions on our faith. We are tired, not only of the media, but also political parties labeling us by our faith. Political scientist, the media, polls and politicians are constantly trying to crack the nut that is our faith by assigning empirical data to our deepest, most personal thoughts. They all want a piece of us- and those of us who refuse to fit neatly in a category are men without countries. I am left of liberal-not because I want to be controversial, not because I am the “Dude” from The Big Lebowski, but because I feel a moral obligation to be politically liberal. Others may live their faith by voting as a conservative. The point is, I don’t like being judged. I don’t like being categorized- by anybody and I don’t like being pandered to. Yes, absolutely the media needs to get off this path, but so do political campaigns. Many of us who unwaveringly defend the separation of church and state do so because it cheapens not only our country but our faith as well.

Dr. N said...

Stephen- The creationism you are describing is generally referred to as "young earth creationism." Those who are young earth creationists represent only a portion of all creationists. There is diversity and disagreement among creationists. We don't know what Palin's views on creationism are, she hasn't talked about it publicly.

So you're only tolerant towards those who agree with you that tolerance is a value we should hold? That is a modest view of tolerance. It's easy to be tolerant towards those who we agree with.

Karen- I'm not sure if we agree. You seem conflicted. I don't mind the media asking a candidate about their religion. If voters want that information, and want to use that information in the voting booth, then the media should be asking for them. If the candidates don't want to answer, that's fine with me. If voters want to take it into consideration, that's fine with me too. Religion can be one consideration among many, but as I've written on this blog before, I wish voters would rank experience more highly than do.

Stephen Maynard Caliendo said...

Good point on the types of creationism, but isn't that the point? Some folks are wondering what sort of creationist Pain is. I'm not of the mind that she necessarily has to answer, but we can't be expected to assume that she's not the kind who rejects aspects of science that conflict with creationism.

It's an unfair characterization of my position to say that I only expect folks to be tolerant of what I agree with. What I think is not the point. If a woman is run out of a village (oppressed) by someone in power, it is the position of progressives to stand up for the person who is oppressed, to speak for those with no voice unless the voice that they seek to have is used to oppress itself. Leaving power out of the equation is the same faulty logic that allows folks to think that woman can be equally "sexist" as men, African Americans can be equally "racist" as whites, etc. It's what I've called the "false reciprocity" argument. Power matters. Madison's language about "majorities" and "minorities," as you know, is about more than numbers, it is about power. As a progressive, I wish to stand with those who are treated unfairly because of their lack of power, whether those folks are in the numerical majority or minority. My position is not subject to my own whims, but greater principle rooted, in my case, to Christian principles of social justice.

Dr. N said...

In that case, I guess I did unfairly characterize your position. Saying that you don't "need to be tolerant of intolerance" is an odd statement and I'm glad that you've clarified those remarks.

With regard to the "witch" incident, to me, there is a lack of clarity on what exactly happened. So, I'm not willing to say that someone was oppressed based upon the sketchy details that have been provided.

My original comment regarding tolerance was aimed at Olbermann, who has made no attempt to try to understand the culture or religion about which he is reporting before reporting on it.

With regard to Palin/creationism, she has said that she wants evolution taught in schools, and when running for governor, only said that she would like students to understand both points of view. She has never rejected the teaching of evolution in public schools.

karenwalker said...

I just want the facts about a candidate. I personally have a problem with Palin because I do not think that she has enough education to make up for her lack of experience. As far as her religion, I need to know that she believes in the separation of church and state. I would need to know this from any candidate. Again, if a candidate uses their religion to garner votes, they should not be surprised to find that this cuts both ways.

Dan Long said...

Professor, I've got to take issue with the idea that politicans don't have to answer questions about their religion. Why is this fine with you? Certainly, if she praticed sataism or some other obscure religion you would want answers to questions?

Just because charasmatics are a fast growing religion doesen't legitimize it more then any other belief. You know what else was fast growing at a different point in our history? McCarthyism, Racism, ect.

Whether the politican in question is the only believer in a religion or one of a hundred million, it seems painfully obvious that the people that elect him or her should have access to what guides their perspective on the world. Especially if videos of you in some church with a Kenyan minister or whatever he may be called, talking about witchraft.

For some of us the idea of 'whitchcraft' sets off a red flag. Is this being intolerant or just awake?

If a somebody doesn't want to discuss their religion fine - we have plenty of great civil service jobs for them, perhaps they could become a accalimed chef or pianst, but if you they are guiding the direction of our society we need to have no red tape in the way of understanding who they are and what direction they want to take us as a country.

Dr. N said...


As I said, if you prefer to not vote for a candidate because they haven't spoken openly about their religion, I'm OK with that too. Some voters might prefer to vote for a charismatic, others, such as yourself, might be less inclined to vote for a charismatic. I would only hope that other factors, such as experience and political ideology would also be taken into consideration.

As Karen has pointed out, taking a candidates religion into consideration is tricky business because it's difficult to know how genuine their faith is. They could be using their religion to garner votes. The tendency of voters is to assume the best from candidates of your own party and assume the worst from candidates of the other party.

Thanks to all those who have commented on this post so far. I've enjoyed the discussion and reading your comments. You all have made some excellent contributions. Plus, you've shattered the previous record of 5 comments on my "Presidential Candidates and the Art of Compromise" post. Thank you.